At 9:40 p.m. on Feb. 15, 1898, a terrible explosion took place in Havana Harbor on board the 6,000-ton U.S. battleship USS Maine, commanded by 53-year-old Civil War veteran Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee.
The blast shook the whole city, shattering windows in surrounding houses. Two of the 26 officers and 250 out of the 329 sailors and marines aboard were immediately killed by the initial explosion, fire or drowning. Of the 103 rescued, 8 died of injuries.
The Maine was built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard using Navy Department designs throughout. The hull was built by navy yard workmen, and the engines were constructed by the Quintard Iron Works. She was a twin-screw, armored turret ship, of the belted type, known as a second-class battleship.
The Maine had come to Spain’s colony of Cuba on a supposed goodwill tour as the Cubans fought for their independence, but actually was sent to protect American property during the period of revolution. The Spanish Government clearly resented this show of marine muscle. The question to this day remains: What caused the explosion?
A Spanish Board of Investigation, although not allowed by the U.S. to visit the wreckage, called it an accident, blaming it on spontaneous combustion. The U.S. Naval Board of Inquiry blamed it on a Spanish mine. William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal had the answer and bannerlined it on Feb. 17:
“Destruction of the war ship Maine was the work of an enemy.”
“Assistant secretary Roosevelt convinced the explosion of the war ship was not an accident.
“The Journal offers $50,000 reward for the conviction of the criminals who sent 258 American sailors to their death. Naval officers unanimous that the ship was destroyed on purpose.”
In a Broadway bar, an unknown man lifted his drink and intoned to the other patrons, “Gentlemen, remember the Maine!” Hearst had his battle cry. He sent artist Frederic Remington to cover the war story in Cuba. When Remington found little happening there, he asked about coming home. Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
On April 24, 1898, Spain declared war on the U.S. due to its interference with the Cuban crisis. The U.S. immediately declared war on Spain in return, retroactive to April 21.
The articles in ‘On This Day In History’ were written by Vernon Parker (1923-2004).